They flood their cells with water. Pour bodily fluids under their doors. Cut themselves with razor blades. Smear blood and feces on their windows. Punch and kick the walls. Pass contraband with fishing wire. Howl at the guards. Cut themselves some more.
For an estimated 80,000 U.S. prisoners, life in solitary confinement — the prison within the prison — is as brutal and as crazy as you could possibly imagine.
"I’ve filmed in war zones and experienced some pretty horrible stuff," says Dan Edge, a filmmaker who was granted rare access to the solitary-confinement unit inside Maine’s maximum-security state prison for "Solitary Nation," a documentary that debuts on Tuesday on PBS' Frontline. "The segregation unit is comparable to the battlefield in many ways."
It's also comparable to an insane asylum.
"Down here, it's like being buried alive," Todd Michael Ficket, one of the inmates profiled by Edge, says in the film. "You're someplace alive, but you're no place anybody wants you."
Ficket, who was given six months in solitary for assaulting a prison officer, predicted his "mental state would probably go downhill like it did last time."
It did. Ficket covered his window and cut a vein, and officers found him passed out in his cell, covered in blood. He had to be removed by guards in riot gear — one of 100 such "extractions" performed at the Maine facility in the past year.
"He's just trying to get what he wants," David Allen, manager of the segregation unit, says. "He knows he's going to have to spend a lot of time in our segregation unit, because he severely assaulted one of our staff members and he's trying to manipulate his way out of dealing with the consequences."
The consequences are 23 hours a day in a single-window cell. One hour is reserved for outdoor exercise — in a cage.
Solitary confinement, which began in the United States in the 1800s as an experiment to reform criminals, has re-emerged as a way to discourage prison violence. But some believe isolation is ineffective — even detrimental — in the long term, especially when roughly 80 percent of those who serve time in solitary are eventually released from prison.
"It’s really dangerous," Maine State Prison Warden Rodney Bouffard says. "You could have someone in here on a five-year commitment. They could do their whole time in segregation. But I don’t want him living next to me when we release him.
"For the normal person who doesn’t work in a facility like this, they’re thinking if you punish them, you’ll make them better," Bouffard continued. "The reality is the exact opposite happens.”
A 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office criticized the rising use of isolation by U.S. prisons, noting that the Bureau of Prisons' own "Psychology Services Manual" acknowledges "that extended periods of confinement in [segregation] may have an adverse effect on the overall mental status of some individuals.”
"What inmates do to themselves in solitary, how extended stays in solitary affect the psychology of an inmate — these things are important to all of us," says Edge, who spent five months filming inside the unit. "The vast majority of these inmates are getting out of prison at some point. If they have been brutalized and damaged by the solitary experience, then ultimately, we all lose.
"Having spent so much time on the unit," he continued, "I now have absolutely no doubt that extended stays in solitary are detrimental to the mental health of inmates. They deteriorate quickly and sometimes dramatically, and some inmates become more rather than less dangerous during their time in solitary."
In February, about three weeks after Edge was done filming, a prisoner recently released from solitary confinement allegedly murdered another inmate. According to prison officials, the victim was stabbed 87 times.
"Some of the officers I spoke to felt he should have stayed in solitary indefinitely," Edge says.